Local girl is digging life
It was less than two months ago that 27-year old Nichols, N.Y. resident, and 2001 Tioga Central School graduate Rachel Ann Blaasch was sitting in the island breeze in Vanuatu, an island country in the South Pacific that is located east of Australia and north of New Zealand.
This Tioga County, N.Y. native, and graduate of Lycoming College, earning a degree in Archeology, decided to put down the shovel for a bit and delve into humanitarian efforts taking place in the world.
From digging around plantations in South Carolina, and at the site of where George Washington grew up in Virginia, Blaasch — at some point — decided that she wanted to do and see more, so she joined the Peace Corps.
Her deployment through the Peace Corps would take her across oceans, and into areas where the culture is so diverse that immersion training of three months was required before her work would even begin.
But how did she get there? And what inspires young members of our community to venture out of the boundaries of the town they know as home to delve into the complete unknown?
To discover the answer, we interviewed Blaasch, and learned of her story and her first-hand experiences with the natives of the island country of Vanuatu.
Blaasch, who grew up in Nichols and attended Tioga Central High School, pursued further education upon her graduation in 2001.
First attending Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) in Cortland, N.Y. for a degree in liberal arts, Blaasch soon transferred to Lycoming College in Williamsport where she would study archeology and creative writing — a combination she felt complimented each other.
While growing up with an older brother Paul, who lives in Windham, Pa., and a sister Nicole (Blaasch) O’Toole, who lives in Waverly, Blaasch had an interest in astronomy and talked of staring into the night skies in search of constellations.
"Astronomy was a hobby for me," she said. "I would read all the books and then look for the constellations. If there were comets, I would look for them too."
But Blaasch was also a big fan of Harrison Ford, and his roles in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. "Ahhh, Harrison Ford," she said, "I was really into that."
And while studying art and history at TC3, Blaasch learned about ancient art — and it sparked her interest. Because of this interest, she furthered her education at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., and earned an eventual degree in archeology and creative Writing.
Upon graduating from Lycoming in 2005, Blaasch began her journey and immediately began landing positions as a field technician, studying and digging for artifacts.
Because the United States has stringent laws surrounding ground clearance for new construction, field technicians, according to Blaasch, would be deployed to dig in areas and check to make sure that nothing would be disturbed.
"When they put in things like cell phone towers they have to make sure there is nothing historic in the ground," she said.
As a field technician, she would travel around the United States to various sites, and would dig as many as 40 holes in areas where nothing was detected. If something was detected, she said, then the digging would be more extensive.
Blaasch described a typical dig. "You would dig the hole until you reached sub soil," she said. "Then you would go down six inches below if something was detected, and then write your report," she added. Blaasch described working at the Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, S.C. for one of her jobs, and how they were searching for signs of slavery. "They were an old money family," she said, "so the construction site was trying to be cautious of disturbing African American history and any signs of slavery."
And although they didn’t find anything at the site of the plantation, they did find items on the other side of the field that dated back to the late 1700’s. According to Blaasch, it was determined that the homes were moved, and that the artifacts were all intact at their former location.
Some of the unearthed discoveries included items that were given to the slaves by the owners of the plantation.
"The slaves were given things that were broken or no longer being used by the owners of the plantation," said Blaasch. "These were the things we found."
But the most interesting site that she worked on was in Fredericksburg, Va. — an area where they were searching for the original site where George Washington lived.
Blaasch described the dig, and how artifacts were found during the previous summer that matched Washington’s era. "It was very exciting," she said.
But the constant movement, going from job to job, began to wear on Blaasch, and she felt that she was ready for a new experience.
Ten years prior, Blaasch’s cousin, Amelia Shafer, had entered the Peace Corps and enjoyed the experience. After careful thought, Blaasch decided to apply; and in April of 2007 she began the lengthy application process.
This process, which took one year, involved an extensive physical. But by July of 2008, Blaasch was enroute to her assignment in Vanuatu.
Landing on the small island of Emae in the Vanuatu island country, which is 10 kilometers long and five kilometers wide, Blaasch was introduced to her host Melanesian family, Tamara and Annie Wilson.
Not knowing the language, which was either English, French or Bislama on the island, and not knowing what to expect for food, Blaasch was allowed a three-month training period to become acclimated to the customs and culture of the island. "It was weird," she said. "You don’t speak the language or know the food."
The island didn’t have electricity either, so there was no refrigeration, and rain water was typically collected for the water source. For her stay, Blaasch had to acclimate to the extreme heat without air-conditioning or fans, and learn to eat foods that were straight from the ground.
But the three months allowed her to learn more about the food source, and to adapt to the temperatures that reached 110 each day during the warmer months. "Their winter is like our warm days during the summer," she added.
She also talked of the foods eaten on the islands of Vanuatu, and how everything is typically grown in gardens and harvested by the peoples of the nation. "They eat root crops like Taro, Manioc and Yams," she said.
And although the island is one of 83, 80 percent of its population is agrarian and live off their own gardens. The island also has a central government, but most of the population is governed by their centuries-old customs and chief system. Blaasch did note, however, that it is a country catapulting into the 21st century, and that the introduction of cell phone coverage is helping them become aware of the outside world.
But following the three months of acclimation, the work for Blaasch began. The Peace Corps has many programs such as teacher trainers and business and agricultural. For Blaasch, her 11-month assignment was community health.
She says the biggest helath problem on the island was anemia. "Anemia is a big problem over there ... They don’t get a lot of iron, she explained, and it mostly affects women.
The other big health issues on the island, according to Blaasch, are non-communicable illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. Because the natives to the island live off the food in the gardens, and because they have great access to oil, sugar and salt, the foods prepared are causing heart and health risks.
She also noted that malaria is also a large health risk on the island.
Because of the risk of contracting malaria, Blaasch slept with a mosquito net around her bed.
But in spite of the underdevelopment of the island, Blaasch described its inhabitants as happy. Over the last couple years, according to a BBC News report, Vanuatu was labeled as the happiest country in the world, with Columbia coming in second. The BBC reports explained why Vanuatu was deemed the happiest place in the world, stating "... the weather is good most of the year, it has paradise-style coastlines, unique rainforests and no income tax."
So one may wonder, how does this compare to Blaasch’s return home to Tioga County, N.Y. following the conclusion of her assignment on May 27 of this year.
For Blaasch, she was homesick at first - but now she misses the island. Blaasch now reminisces about the rain season that would pass by her custom home with a hut appearance. The structure, made of wood with a thatched roof consisting of leaves, would sustain the brief heavy downpours during the rain season. "It would rain," said Blaasch, "and then the sun would come out." "I miss it."
Back home, Blaasch spends more time outdoors than she used to, and has had to do some extensive clothes shopping to replace her wardrobe.
"Over there the women must wear skirts," said Blaasch, "and the clothing was more suited for extreme heat."
Blaasch is taking this period of time, back home, to readjust, and to sit back and decide what adventures she will embark upon next. And the adjustment, according to Blaasch, is difficult.
"I am accidentally still using the language," said Blaasch, "and I am frustrated at the stores because I don’t know where my food is coming from." "Over there, you knew where your food was from and what you were eating."
Blaasch is thinking that she will pursue graduate studies in archeology next, and hopes to open her own museum some day. But in the meantime, hikes through wooded areas in the region are helping Blaasch transitions from her not-so-far-in- the-distant island experience - on the island of Vanuatu.